Don't Focus

Can you be a generalist and an expert? Perhaps they don't have to be mutually exclusive
Eric Goodwin

The classic idiom - "Jack-of-all-trades, master of none"

It's a clever saying, meant to show that if you’re a generalist (knowledgeable in several trades) you can’t master any of them. Perhaps because we don't have enough time in this world to become an expert at more than one thing - which in a way is true, we do have limited time on this planet - but I don’t think this adage is particularly true anymore.

There's a few reasons why I feel that this saying is out of date. First off, who doesn't want to be good at multiple things? Who doesn't want to be called upon to share their expertise and knowledge at more than one thing? Even a world class expert doesn't want to be consulted only on their narrow scope of expertise. I think it's safe to say that even a world class engineer, while passionate about engineering, sometimes wants to be asked how they make their special banana bread.

Secondly, this saying was first developed a long time ago, when it really did take a very long time to become good at something. This simply isn't true anymore. Now there is plenty of time to become good, or even an expert at many things. Not because we have more time on earth, but because we have access to information (and the ability to share information) at levels that, when this saying was first coined, would have been unthinkable.

Let's take woodworking as an example, and say I want to make a coffee table. In the past, I would probably have to seek out an expert who I could apprentice under; try to find the tools and hardware locally; and even after all that I could only learn the unique skills of the particular expert I was working with. If I wanted to learn how to make a different style of coffee table, I would have to seek out someone else with the skills to make this different style of table who would be willing to teach me. All this would take months, possibly years.

Nowadays, if I want to learn how to make a coffee table, I can gather inspiration from sites such as Pinterest; research the best tools, hardware, and materials online and have the ability to order from nearly anywhere in the world; and learn virtually every method and technique from various sources all over the internet. If someone was driven and passionate about learning to make a coffee table they could knock this out and start making great coffee tables in just a few weeks. If I still wanted to apprentice under an expert even that would be easier and faster with the internet. A ten minute web search would yield hundreds of results for expert carpenters, classes, and courses with pricing, reviews, and phone numbers all lined up.

This is such a stark contrast from only a few decades ago that it's actually quite unbelievable. The speed and level to which someone can learn something and become skilled at it is truly amazing in our modern age.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is that to be an expert at something, or even just very skilled at something, you inherently have to be skilled at a wide range of things. Your brain doesn't have a limit to how much it can learn and retain, and this is where the magic comes in, because being a generalist can actually make you more of an expert at something. Let's use outerwear design as an example.

Let's say there are two outerwear designers that are at the exact same skill level, but one of them goes out and studies human anatomy. Nothing crazy, not a 4 year degree in human anatomy or anything - they just watch a few videos, read some books and articles, and maybe attends a course or two. Who's going to be better at outerwear design? Well assuming they're making outerwear for humans, I would say the one who has done a little studying of the human body.

What if that same person now goes out and studies material sciences? Again nothing crazy but just some basic research on different materials, material properties, some new developments in the world of material sciences, etc. Now that designer is pretty far ahead of the other designer, and that's just learning about two different but somewhat related fields.

Being a generalist wires your brain to think creatively. If you become great, or even good at a wide range of things your brain will be able to draw on your diverse experience to develop new solutions. The cool part is that this all happens behind the scenes within your subconscious, you won’t even necessarily know you are connecting two unrelated experiences to form a new solution or concept.

I think to become a true expert, you have to be a generalist. So if you want to become not just better at something, but more creative within that field, consider learning and practicing something unrelated. Become a jack of all trades, and work on that Banana Bread.